Tag Archives: #Precariat

Degenerate Matter

10.XI 2019

When a star exhausts its nuclear fuel, the balance tips in favor of gravity, and the star starts to collapse. In its final stage, it expels most of its outer material leaving the core as its only remain. This core becomes a very hot white dwarf. Rules governing “life” on a white dwarf are quite different from those on a normal star[1]. Highly compressed mater exposes the quantum mechanical nature of its constituents, which, when stripped down to their irreducible selves, obey the exclusion principle: no two particles can occupy the same state. As the density of such matter increases, so does its energy, pressure and temperature. In the dense matter, particles cannot slow down completely all at the same time. Some of them can, but once they occupy the low energy levels, those levels become inaccessible to the rest, so they start populating the next lowest levels and when those are filled, there come the next higher etc. When all available energy levels are filled, this is referred to as degenerate matter – it is an overcrowded environment where everyone suffers from acute claustrophobia.

Economic progress is intrinsically coupled with exclusion and exclusion with the production of excess population – those who fall through the cracks and cannot be reintegrated into the normal functioning of society. They represent a surplus of humanity that is unwanted, inconvenient, and ultimately displaced and are earmarked for transport outside of the enclosure of prosperity. Their presence creates discomfort inside the enclosure and changes the underlying social dynamics. The longer the excess population rubs shoulders with “normal” folks, the more palpable precarity becomes everyone’s prospect and the less reassuringly safe anyone’s position seems[2].

The volume of excess population has come close to exceeding the managerial capacity of the planet. This is one of the biggest and most acute problems of the developed world today. Every political administration in the USA has had a different proposal for managing the latent anxiety associated with it. This issue has shaped the transformation of the neoliberal state in the last decades from the welfare to the penal modality of its functioning[3]. The neoliberal response to the problem of growing excess population has been centered on the proliferation of underclasses as a counterweight to the prolapse of the eroding middle class and reinforcement of their illusory comfort. As a consequence, poverty has become more granular. In the last 50 years three new classes have emerged at the bottom. In addition to the four existing classes, The elite plutocracy, The Salariat, Proficians, and Proletariat, there are the three new structures at the bottom[4]: The precariat, The unemployed, and The lumpen precariat.

While the standard of living of the working class remains underwritten by forms of income other than money wages (e.g. welfare, social security, unemployment insurance, Medicare…), for the precariat, those benefits have largely disappeared. The combination of employment instability and income vulnerability defines the economic precarity of the precariat.

Precariat position centers on the increasing marginalization of many people from the rights normally associated with citizenship (disenfranchised, homeless, former prisoners, illegal immigrants…). The intersection of economic precarity with political marginality is what distinguishes the precariat from the working class. The precariat lacks the seven forms of labor-related security: labor market security, employment security, job security, work security, skill reproduction security, income security, and representation security[5].

Mathematics of poverty

When it comes to wealth distribution, there is a general misconception about the role of randomness. Almost by default, randomness is misidentified as a sine qua non for fairness: If we let the chips fall where they may, randomness would guarantee equitable distributions — everyone will be happy. The false equivalence between randomness and fairness is incorrect and nowhere is it more forcefully invalidated than in the case of wealth accumulation and its distribution. In fact, the very opposite holds true: If it were up to the forces of randomness alone, unregulated and unattended, the outcome would be extreme wealth disparity – there would be very little in the middle of the distribution and most of it would be in the tails.

Extreme wealth goes hand in hand with extreme poverty and the depletion of the middle class. This is the mathematics of wealth accumulation alone, and holds true even if we do not account for the power, political influence, and intergenerational reinforcement it brings. The figure below shows the distribution of wealth determined by a repeated coin toss[6]: each participant gains or loses a unit of wealth if they get heads or tails respectively. This is repeated many times. The total wealth is displayed as a fraction of favorable tosses. For example, 0% means not a single heads outcome – the player is considered poor at the end; 50% reflects an equal number of favorable and unfavorable tosses – the wealth is unchanged; 100% is all favorable tosses – the wealth accumulation is maximal.

ArcSinDistribution

While new wealth (or its depletion) arrives in random installments, total individual wealth is mostly either steadily increasing or decreasing (with a relatively small fraction remaining stable). Most of the distribution is in the wings: 40% of the people are poor and 40% are rich, while only 20% are in the middle. Visually, this is a mirror image of the normal distribution where 2/3 of its mass resides in a two standard deviation band around the mean.

In reality, wealth is even more concentrated than this. The disparity due to randomness is amplified with each generation as initial conditions reinforce it further. This is exactly our current predicament. 20th century capitalism is a spectacular confirmation of this mathematical result. As much as this most amazing period of human history had been about enlightenment, emancipation, science, progress, and wealth, it had generated a staggering amount of poverty along the way.

Poverty used to be a safe place

Wealth is inherently empowering and motivating; poverty is neither [Jeffrey A. Winters].

The presence of wealth focuses the political attention of the rich on wealth defense; its absence has no parallel effect on the poor. Poverty by itself neither motivates nor provides a core set of common interests for the poor the way wealth does for the rich.

Capitalism never recognized poverty as its own, its endogeneity always denied and rationalized by deploying exogenous factors or attributed to imperfections of implementation. As it grew bigger and deeper, poverty became self-reproducing and multiplying.

No one has captured the essence of poverty better than the French poet Charles Péguy in his 1913 essay[7]: Poverty was an unspoken contract between man and destiny, and before the outset of post-modern times destiny had never reneged on this contract. We had known the times when a man condemned to poverty was at least secure in poverty. It was understood that those who wished to escape poverty, those who gambled, risked everything. Those who gambled could lose, but those who didn’t gamble could not lose. They could not have suspected that a time would come, that it was already here – and this, precisely is modern times – when those who do not gamble lose all the time, even more assuredly than those who do.

In postmodernity, this only became more extreme with the 21st century delivering the complete transformation. Paradoxically, the metamorphosis of poverty has been most striking across electoral democracies in developed economies where poverty became not only risky, but shameful and, with time, its criminalization became one of the main neoliberal projects[8] resulting in systematic social precarization and large-scale loss of citizens’ rights contributing to the rise of new underclasses. This particular mode of permanent exclusion short-circuited the feedback loop between their discontent and the political process. And nowhere has this transformation been more extreme and thorough than in post-modern America where the gambling mindset became a new paradigm, and gamblers new folk heroes, and where society gradually transformed from that of workers to risk takers and lottery winners.

The physics of social downgrade

There are always too many of them. ‘Them’ are the fellows whom there should be fewer – or better still none at all. And there are never enough ou us. ‘Us’ are the floks of whom there should be more. (Zygmunt Bauman)

At the bottom of the social scale, the stakes are lower and risks higher. Migrants, the new underclass of precariat, who flee their homes out of desperation represent the highest level of risk taking. They trade the certainty of poverty at home for the risk of precarity abroad, in the developed world and agree to populate the lowest social strata in exchange for an objectively infinitesimal chance of a better future.

Exhaustion of social libidinal energy, the equivalent of the nuclear fuel of a star, is the beginning of the creation of social degenerate matter. The more society is shaped as the winner-takes-all, the more extreme risk taking is set off and the more dire the consequences and deeper the downfalls, resulting in more crowding at the bottom layers of social underclasses.

Nothing frightens people as much as the prospect of their social degradation, of losing their social status or facing a class downgrade. This fear is managed by the creation of social underclasses. The rise of new modes of xenophobia is a result of the underlying class struggles at the bottom.

In post-war Western Europe, immigration issues were rarely (if ever) an important part of a political platform. An influx of immigrants was driven by demand for labor; their social position as precariat was controlled both administratively and culturally. Immigrants practically never had a shot at citizenship and neither did their offspring. There was no mixing with local folks due to impenetrable cultural barriers which were practically never challenged.

Celebrated by the capital for removal of economic rigidities and as a catalyst of free capital flow, globalization was, at the same time, a major disruption of the social equilibrium. By its very constitution, globalization guarantees porous boundaries for capital, and the basic condition for restoration of equilibrium requires that the same holds for labor. Social precarization, thus, became the process of formation of a new equilibrium, a consequence of a tradeoff between poverty and precarity. However, lumpy, intermittent surges in supply of precarity, sometimes as much as one million people at a time, put enormous stress, both fiscal and social, on domestic middle and lower-middle classes and threaten their social standing, especially in times when the crushing forces of the economic zero-sum game have become inescapable due to the depletion of growth and general libidinal forces. This has only become more acute in post-2008 years as policy response aimed at covering the costs of capitalist excesses began to exaggerate already preexisting social imbalances.

The lower middle class and domestic excess population don’t really mind minorities or immigrants as such, they just don’t want to see them climbing the existing social ladder – they want them and their offspring segregated and permanently prevented from getting a shot at it. The lower echelons of society need assurances and a buffer (political, institutional, and physical) that separates them from the true underclass. This is their new political demand, which they are being promised by the new populist leaders.

The images of detainment facilities and overall dehumanization of target groups (immigrants and minorities), tried and exploited so many times before, whose replay we have been seeing in the last years, are very powerful assurance tools in that context. Ritualistic denial of their humanity with gratuitous displays of cruelty, are essential parts of political strategy and communication tools between populist politicians and their base. Immigrants, in their view, need to be confined to the three lowest social groups and the walls – symbolic, administrative and (preferably) physical — between them and the rest of the population have to be permanent and impenetrable. As a cultural concept, these walls have an immeasurable symbolic value for the domestic underclass. This is the main reason why the issue of immigration has become a central part of every populist movement now (and not before), and why the idea of The Wall, as idiotic as it objectively is, cannot be abandoned by populist politicians if they want to have a chance of staying in power.

White dwarf capitalism

Ever since humanity bowed to the economy, all that is left is the freedom of hostility. The feeling of hate is the only thing that survived in people’s minds since the first days of the 20th century and the beginning of progress. It dominates today’s societies of abundance. (Paul Virilio)

Capitalism will not disappear, it will transform into managerial feudalism. In its final stages, capitalism functions very much like a collapsing star. When it exhausts its libidinal energy, it will turn into an economic and social white dwarf. The rules governing the behavior of such a social structure are very different from the laws describing traditional social organizations.

Degenerate matter, the fabric of white dwarfs, is not composed of atoms and molecules, but elementary particles. Stripped down to their irreducible selves and decontextualized, elementary particles no longer come together and form chemical bonds. There is no chemistry, no biology, and there is no life. Instead, there is a strict hierarchical order establish by particles’ intrinsic intolerance for each other. As basic social structures like family, clan, community, or congregation no longer function, when empathy is extinguished, and only individuals, stripped of their social context and governed exclusively by their own self-interests remain, society becomes a culture of elementary particles and turns into social degenerate matter.

White dwarfs are perfect undead objects. They are eternal[9] — it takes forever for them to cool and lose all their energy, longer than the life of the universe. Their constitution defines a perfect stasis: Everything is in its place inside a white dwarf; there is no room for anything to change. It is a perfect rigid order – a beautiful monstrosity without any attributes of life.

Civilizations rise and they collapse making way to new ones. White dwarfs do not have enough mass to collapse into neutron stars or black holes. They must endure a far harsher sentence than death: Eternity without the capacity to end their existence.

 

[1] As the density increases, so does the pressure, energy and the temperature (which is the average kinetic energy of the system). As a consequence, temperature of the white dwarfs exceeds 100,000 degrees. Density of white dwarfs is typically 200,000 times that of Earth and the gravity on their surface of is 350,000 times that of gravity on Earth. That means a 150-pound (68-kilogram) person on Earth would weigh 50 million pounds (22.7 million kg) on the surface of a white dwarf.

[2] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Polity; 1 edition (2003)

[3] ibid.

[4] Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury Academic; 1st edition (2011)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jamil Baz and George Chacko, Financial Derivatives: Pricing, Applications, and Mathematics, Cambridge University Press (2004)

[7] Charles Péguy, d’Argent, Des Equateurs (2008)

[8] While neoliberalism produces social and economic vulnerability, criminalization produces ways to capitalize on that vulnerability. The criminalization of illicit drugs accomplishes three things at once. First, it reinforces socioeconomic vulnerability through a steady flow of pre-trial detainees, prisoners, parolees and families disrupted by harshly punitive sanctions. Second, it makes the economic viability of hard drugs dependent on a willingness to assume risk, especially as entry-level narco-labor. This willingness is a condition clearly associated with the socioeconomically marginalized – those who have little to lose but their “freedom”. Third, it guarantees accessibility of hard drugs to the disenfranchised segment of the population. In this way, the very victims of global capitalism are trapped in the spider web of the carceral state and the more they struggle to survive in it, the more precarious their position becomes.

[9] As the theory goes, white dwarfs should, in principle, gradually cool down and stop emitting light and eventually morph into black dwarfs. However, this is a very slow process – the period of the transformation would take in excess of 14 billion years – more than the age of the universe. Thus, the mortality of the white dwarfs is an entirely academic question. For all purposes, white dwarfs are universally eternal.

Male trouble and the rise of the disillusioned perspective

22. X 2018

The disillusioned perspective distinguishes continually between life as we want it to be and life as it actually is. Conversion is a transparent attempt to lend meaning to the meaningless, possibly only through self-delusion, that is by allowing illusion to trump disillusion. (Karl Ove Knausgaard)

It is the eleventh hour for white American males. This, once dominant and privileged majority has become a collateral damage of capitalism’s global triumph, beaten in just about any game that matters, even the ones they invented, they are joining the ranks of excess population facing a threat of irreversible social displacement and marginalization. Tired of self-abuse, anesthetized by drugs and alcohol, angry and armed with guns, but feeling powerless, a growing number of American white men is taking permanent residence in the center of the disillusioned perspective, in desperate search for conversion, looking for a savior who will restore their lost dignity and self-respect, and reclaim, on their behalf, what they always considered rightfully theirs, the basic white male privilege.

In that quest they have fallen victims to predatory seduction of anarcho-capitalists and global kleptocrats. These merchants of regressive nostalgia and self-proclaimed guardians of traditional values, who celebrate the idea of privatized utopias of gated communities, do not really need the white male precariat as such, but are ready to offer them whatever leftovers they don’t need, in exchange for an exclusive right to manage their rage capital and for their voice in the ballot box. And white American males will take it and will fall under the spell of magical thinking of the Third-World-esque political pornographers just because, stripped of all other alternatives, the male precariat has found itself lost in the blind alley of the disillusioned perspective.

The stories we tell ourselves and the stories behind stores: The emergence of male precarity

American men have been the unintended victim of the policies and socio-economic changes of their own creation, which saw their culmination in the ultimate downfall ten years ago. Although the prophets of supply side economics continue to insist that we are deep into the recovery cycle, a minimal dose of common sense points in the opposite direction – the economy and, especially, society have never fully recover after 2008 — the crisis appears only to be deepening.

Here’s one way of slicing it. Conventional civilian unemployment rate represents a fraction of the labor force that is not employed. It is a superficial (and distorted) way of assessing the state of economic health, the official statistics reported and referenced in the media and public discourse. It is compared here with the fraction of the US male population of working-age without a job (not including the people that are currently in prisons, so that its rise does not get confused with the explosion of the incarceration rate).

Joblessness never stops for American men

UR M vs ConventionalThe histories of these two measures of unemployment share the same cyclicals: Their rise in recessions and decline during recoveries always takes place in a coordinated way. However, their structural parts are different. Although during each recession conventional unemployment peaks, it always returns to its “normal”, pre-recession level, somewhere in the 4-5% range. Male unemployment, on the other hand, follows a steady upward trend. For over a half a century, since 1960s, every six years the unemployment rate of American men has increased by an additional 1%. For them, there is no “normal” unemployment – every recession creates a new, higher, normal unemployment rate they are required to tolerate.

In every recession, the social costs of recovery have been financed by the rise of male precarity. And those social costs have accumulated to the point where they no longer can be ignored. The current male unemployment rate is around 14%, about 10% higher than in the 1960s. This is the unemployment gap that captures the level of male precarity. Nearly 10 million American men[1] are currently without a job (in the 1960s they accounted for about 1.5mn), and with them probably another 10+ million of their immediate family members and/or dependents who are affected by that condition.

When compared to the unemployment of women, which shows exactly the opposite trend, these numbers highlight the problem associated with the male condition. Starting with the 1960s only a small fraction of women worked and their unemployment rate was in the 60% range. It has since declined down to 25%, with a noticeable inflection in the 1980s, a consequence of significant socio-economic changes, shift of focus from manufacturing to service economy, women’s liberation, and a general emancipation trend.

Two opposing trends: Unemployment of American men and women

UR M vs F

As male unemployment tripled in size since the 1960s, female numbers declined to less than half of their initial value. All progressive forces, like general education, emancipation, or new technologies, which had been embraced initially as possibilities for improvements in the working conditions, leisure, and higher quality of life, eventually became new techniques of control and created the world of perpetual underemployment. These developments have inspired a massive wave of anti-progressive sentiment and emerged as the foundations of the disillusioned perspective, predominantly, of American white men.

Male precariat and the excess population

Over the course of six decades, American men have become the main constituents of what Zygmunt Bauman has identified as the excess population: The volume of humans that are made redundant by the global triumph of capitalism has grown so much that it exceeds the managerial capacity of the planet. They cannot be re-assimilated into the “normal” life pattern and reprocessed back into the category of “useful” members of society.[2] This has emerged as the most challenging test of the existing socioeconomic paradigm, with no hint of possible solution in sight.

There are several shades of excess population. At the extreme end of the spectrum reside criminals and chronic outsiders, for whom there is no place within the boundaries of the enclosure inside which an economic balance and social equilibrium are sought[3]. These people are transported outside of the enclosure, either sent to prisons, or confined to life in hyperghettos without access to traditional citizens’ rights.

The unemployed represent those who escaped transportation and remain inside enclosure; although temporarily redundant, they are earmarked for recycling and rehabilitation. However, all that changes once the drainage of the surplus of humans is blocked. The longer the redundant population stays inside and rubs shoulders with the useful and legitimate rest, the less the lines separating normality and abnormality appear reassuringly unambiguous. Assignment to waste becomes everybody’s potential prospect – one of the two poles between which everybody’s present and future social standing oscillates[4]. As unemployment becomes chronic, the ranks of those who permanently drop out of the labor force swell and they become a burden to the society. Their temporary status comes under review and they face potential permanent exclusion.

American males have been falling through the cracks for decades. Angry and growing in size, they epitomize the excess of population, a burden to the society for which there is no solution. And when under pressure of persistent hardship all the energy of young age wears down and body and soul capitulate, they become a part of the “dark statistics”. Mortality of white American males 45-54 — the age when the emotional and physical immune system gives up — is on the rise, while everyone else’s condition (including that of Hispanic Americans) is improving.

The three horsemen of the white male apocalypse

Mortality

What accounts for this dispersion is hardly surprising. While the biggest killers, such as lung cancer have been on a steady decline, death due to poisoning (read: “drug OD”) has more than tripled, suicide rate (i.e. depression) doubled, and death due to chronic liver diseases (alcoholism) increased by 50% since the beginning of the century. Together with prisons, as graduate schools of crime, drugs, depression, and alcoholism are the three main ideological tools for drainage of the excess of population.

Dark America: Nonsense with a purpose and political pornografication

Populism has become the ideological response to the disillusioned perspective, an attempt to lend meaning to the meaningless, to trump disillusion through self-delusion. When process of growth and change becomes chaotic and overwhelming, individuals experiencing such episodes feel that their sense of identity is breaking down, that their old values no longer hold true and that the very ground beneath their personal realities is radically shifting. This is the point at which the new identity politics inserts itself.

Joblessness of men, predominantly whites, has been the cause of multiple side-effects and various forms of social vulnerability. With time, white men’s social dislocation created a fertile ground for a simmering resentment towards those superficially perceived to have been the causes of their job losses, and with it, their social status and, ultimately, self-respect. This made them receptive to the predatory politics of right wing populism. Instead of questioning capitalism’s responsibility for its crimes, their discontent was articulated in a displaced mode, as a cultural struggle.

The main culprits of their condition have been (mis)identified as women, minorities, immigrants, globalization and emancipation in general. Misogyny, resurgent racism, and xenophobia emerged as major mobilizing forces of the conservative right, championed by the NRA, right-to-lifers, and white supremacists, and fortified by the alliances with the vulgar materialism of Christian fundamentalism in the background. These became the voices of the disillusioned perspective that outline the contours of Dark America, which found its way to the ballot box in 2016. Such distribution of factors and their misidentified causes could struck resonance with the fundamentalist narratives and paved the way for a full blown relapse towards strict patriarchal order inspired by nostalgia for times when social coherence was firm and stable due to rigid family structure and racial segregation.

This is where Christian fundamentalism meets its lost Islamic twin and other monotheistic siblings. Nothing illustrates better this civilizational relapse than the words of Mark Harris, pastor turned Republican nominee for Congress in North Carolina’s 9th district. This otherwise marginal and utterly insignificant individual, has distinguished himself by repeatedly questioning the health of women’s pursuit to prioritize their careers and independence over their biblical “core calling”. His colorful sermons condense the core republican views in an unedited form:

Wives, please hear me this morning. You’re not to ever submit because your husband demands it, but you do it because the Lord ordained it. Now ladies, you can rebel against that command, but just please understand you’re not rebelling against your husband, but against the Lord … submission is not about inferiority in any way, any shape and any form. It simply reflects a God-ordained function of things.

When put in context, the message is clear: Emancipation is a sin, modern women are the offenders, getting ahead of men is a rebellion against God’s order of things. “So get over this inequality thing — because that’s not the point of submission,” he concludes.

By retreating to their households and assuming the subordinate role of housewives, women would exonerate themselves from sin and, at the same time, participate in an economic and social reform[5]. Youth crime would decline, as would unemployment when women, grateful for an opportunity to please God, begin to leave the workforce to care for their children. The problem of excess population and unemployment (together with budget deficit!) would be solved in one stroke – here is your conservative fiscal policy right there.

This is one of many techniques of submission of women, the main ideological pillar of right wing identity politics, populist and mainstream alike, which speaks directly to, and resonates strongly with, their sole constituency who are, at the same time, the main victims of its ideological predation – the white male precariat.

Unlike intellectuals, who experience the world with their brains, poor and uneducated arrive at their convictions through their empty stomachs. One cannot confuse them by opening new horizons or perspectives[6] (e.g. with the empty promises of centrists’ narratives). However, they remain blind to conversion. The disillusioned gaze sees through everything, sees all the lies and the pretenses, the only thing it doesn’t see is its own origin, its driving force[7]. White men are at the end of the rope; they have fallen victims of their own creations. And that is the biggest irony of this otherwise unhappy and depressing story.

 

[1] There are currently around 60 million men and about 70 million women age 25-54 in the US

[2] Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Polity (2003)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] This reform would go along the same lines as described by Michel Houellebecq in Submission

[6] Reflections of the SS Standartenführer Heinrich Steinbrecher, in How to quiet a vampire, B. Pekic, Northwestern University Press (2003)

[7] Karl Ove Knausgaard, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, NYT (2-Nov-2015)